The 10 Most Unwanted
A rogues' gallery of swindlers, frauds, and fakes who preyed upon and exploited the innocence, kindness, good humor, and trusting nature of Minnesotans. Darn them!
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Late last year, former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling took up residence in Minnesota. Yes, the man at the helm of the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history—well, that guy is now our neighbor, albeit as inmate No. 29296-179 in a federal prison in Waseca. “We welcome anybody that comes to our community,” the town’s mayor told a newspaper shortly before Skilling’s arrival, as if he was handing over a key to the city. ¶ Minnesota nice, it seems, knows no bounds. If anything, the hospitality the locals extended to the Enron exec is unremarkable: Over the years, we’ve offered boon comforts to countless bamboozlers and cheats. We’ve courted frauds and fakes and phonies, succumbed to the swindles of smooth-talking Scots, and invested in pyramid schemes hatched by our own native sons. Quackery, forgery, insurance fraud, and bilking Benedictine nuns—we’ve seen it all. ¶ Now, nobody likes to be deceived. But sometimes ya gotta admire the conniver’s chutzpah, give credit where credit is due. So, here’s a list of 10 dissemblers who deserve not only their notoriety, but a tip of the hat, a bit of recognition—for putting the devil in the details.
A tower builder does time
Wilbur Foshay arrived in Minneapolis in 1915 as a young man of modest means, and made a fortune buying and selling public-utility companies. With those funds, he built the largest structure west of Chicago, modeling it after the Washington Monument. In August 1929, Foshay hosted a three-day festival to celebrate the opening of the needle-shaped tower. John Philip Sousa composed a march for the occasion.
Foshay had his name carved near the top of the 447-foot obelisk as a reminder to one and all of who footed the bill for its construction—well, sorta…. Within days of the party, Foshay was running around New York trying to find capital to keep his business afloat. Turns out W. B. Foshay Company had a serious cash flow problem, and 1929 was a bad year for that sort of thing.
By November, Foshay’s operation was in receivership, but that didn’t stop him from tricking would-be investors into thinking everything was hunky-dory. He paid exorbitant dividends to a few investors, in the hopes of luring many others into investing in the company at an inflated rate. It didn’t work. The feds charged him with fraud, and he spent several years in Leavenworth before his sentence was commuted by President Roosevelt.
The verdict: More fool than outright fraud, Foshay was a bungler brought down by his own towering ambitions.
Sucker punch! Even the check to Sousa bounced. Ouch!
As a member of the campaign team that helped boost Paul Wellstone into a U.S. Senate seat in 1990, Coleraine native Pat Forciea was long seen as a guy with a golden touch. Which leaves one to wonder what the late senator would have made of his distinctly impolitic actions in 2004.
Forciea, who once had a hand in promoting local athletic franchises like the Twins and the North Stars, was trying to assemble a small empire of minor-league hockey teams. Nothing wrong with that—except for a few details: Forciea forged some signatures (including that of Minnesota Wild owner Robert Naegele Jr.) on bank documents to get financing. He also embezzled more than $700,000 from a collection of Dairy Queens in Florida, a business that included high-profile attorney Michael Ciresi as an investor. There was no trial: Forciea pled guilty to two counts of bank fraud and four counts of wire fraud. He was sentenced to eight years in the federal penalty box and ordered to pay $5 million in restitution.
The verdict: Forciea claimed he suffered from bipolar disorder. Isn’t that punishment enough?
Sucker punch! While awaiting sentencing, Forciea fraudulently tried to obtain $10,000 in loans. The ploy only served to nix a prior plea deal—and added a few years to his prison term.
Wallace, Willis, and Frank Reinhardt
selling manhood—by the bottle
Long before Bob Dole met Viagra, the Reinhardt brothers of St. Paul were stiffing the competition in the “erectile dysfunction” market. Around the turn of the century, they established several “medical institutes” throughout the Upper Midwest that specialized in problems associated with “the secret diseases of men” and “lost manhood.” Their first store, in Minneapolis, lured clients with an astonishing window display, a waxworks tableau of “The Dying Custer.” In the center of the graphic scene, the Boy General lay on his back, one hand reaching imploringly upward, while a concealed bellows slowly raised and lowered his waxy chest.
Slack-jawed yokels, amazed at the remarkably lifelike facsimile, would head inside to see what else they could see. Once there, the Reinhardts steered them toward more wax figures, most of which exhibited advanced stages of debilitating diseases, with an emphasis on the venereal. At the exhibit’s end could be found a line of sober, bespectacled clerks who would offer consultations and a restorative tonic or two. Sales were brisk. By the time the gullible got to the pseudo-pharmaceuticals, they were usually convinced that, like Custer in the window, they, too, were nearing the Last Stand.
The verdict: Though eventually exposed by an intrepid journalist, the Reinhardts never wound up doing time for their deceptions. Probably because no customer wanted to testify in court about his lackluster sex life.
Sucker punch! The most popular Reinhardt remedy was known as the “come-back”—a name that was doubly true. Users believed the elixir could help reenergize their flaccid reputations, and the product, composed largely of syrup and alcohol, guaranteed the customers would return.